On Catholic authors

16 05 2019

A perhaps unpopular take that I had recently is that, in the English-speaking world, erudite Catholics used literature to replace an actual Catholic culture. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that they use literature to make up for the fact that English does not have a Catholic culture in which to speak. While certain convert authors seem to be popular elsewhere (for example, I know Tolkien and Chesterton have a following in the Catholic right in Latin America, mainly for their fiction), in general the concerns of the Catholic mind elsewhere have little to do with authors who originally wrote in English. I don’t really think that people in Catholic countries consider certain authors to be “Catholic authors,” but mainly just authors, or the role of literature is somewhat muted viz. their Faith.

Spanish is the language I have the most experience with, and there even in basic education one has to engage with the poetry of St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross, the prose of Luis de Leon, etc. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz is a national treasure of the Mexican baroque period, and such authors as Calderon de la Barca and Lope de Vega wrote extensively on Catholic themes (it helps that they were both priests). In the modern period, the role of faith in literature seems more muted, with poets like Gabriela Mistral giving their somewhat unorthodox takes on the mysteries of the Faith in the modern world. Most popular cultural authors aren’t necessarily believers but have to tackle religious themes. Here I think of Miguel de Unamuno, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Carlos Fuentes in particular, but I am a bit rusty in all of this, not being a big literature consumer at present.

I could speculate a bit more about French and Italian, but in general here Catholicism was not some medieval myth that one had to conjure up in one’s mind, but an actual significant player in one’s personal and cultural life, for better or worse. Many Catholic countries underwent significant anticlerical movements, and some of the hostility toward the Church was admittedly deserved. Those with imagination often felt they had to escape from under the thumb of the Church, and weren’t necessarily in the mood to romanticize an “Age of Faith”. Being Catholic, or at least being haunted by the specter of Catholicism, was part of being a normal person, and not something that made you more interesting.

There are of course exceptions, particularly in places like France where the rupture was quite severe between the Ancien Regime and modernity. But in general Catholic literature in English falls flat with me because it reminds me more of what has been lost than what can be recovered. To paraphrase Kundera, before a tradition dies definitively, it is turned into literature.

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One response

23 05 2019
Bourbon Apocalypse: A Whiskey Son of Sorrow

Mr. Vasquez,

Along these lines–I think…. A post from years ago (seven/eight?) gave a recommended Catholic reading list that ranged from The Catechism of Pius X to Madonnas That Maim. I found the list very interesting, so I printed it; I still have it floating around somewhere in my apartment. However, your newer readers may benefit from a reposting. After all–going back to our Fish Eaters forum days, who else is going to defend folk Catholicism?

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